|Monica Bill Barnes & Company by Christopher Duggan|
Exciting or Exhausting?: Monica Bill Barnes & Company Returns to the American Dance Festival
July 1, 2012
The world of performing can be intoxicating, but it can also be heartbreaking. The tumultuous world of showbiz was a common thread binding Monica Bill Barnes' three works, "Luster", "Mostly Fanfare" and "Everything is Getting Better All the Time" performed by the Monica Bill Barnes & Company at the Reynolds Industries Theater on July 1, 2012. Blending a wide range of movement styles from vaudeville to Latin, Monica Bill Barnes showed the audience the hopeful and sometimes fragile human being behind the bold and attention seeking performer.
"Luster", an ADF commissioned duet for Monica Bill Barnes and her long time collaborator, Anna Bass, opened the evening with a look at camaraderie and endurance, two keys to success in the business. Barnes and Bass, clad in sneakers and sequined gowns, bopped around the stage hand jiving, clapping, and snapping pictures of themselves holding bouquets. The chemistry between the two was contagious as they shimmied, saluted and sambaed in perfect unison, while each maintaining an individual flair. Sitting on two wooden chairs, the women flapped their arms, leaned back into smooth fan kicks and hit punctuated poses as though jamming out to the radio on a road trip. Somehow all the scattered elements of sweat wiping, sneaker squeaking, and formal posing made sense, as though two friends were looking back on a scrapbook of moments shared and triumphs celebrated.
In "Mostly Fanfare", blue lights rose up on Monica Bill Barnes, Anna Bass and Christina Robson dressed in simple white tank tops and black skirts with cumbersome feather headdresses reminiscent of vaudeville showgirls. The trio carefully pranced down the diagonal with heads held high and elbows jutted out to the side, like show ponies in a parade. They reached downstage only to chaine, run or stumble back upstage where they stopped and stared at the curtain, feet wide and arms outstretched in a grand gesture, waiting for some sort of entrance. They transversed the diagonal several times, each journey ending upstage, where they waited expectantly. Whatever they hoped for never came. Instead Barnes and Robson trotted offstage leaving Bass in the spotlight alone to entertain us. Bass weaved through slumped shoulder turns and generous arabesques with outstretched arms as she wavered between her own need to perform and the obligation of entertaining one's audience. Complicating Bass's search for approval were large boxes thrown out of nowhere into her open arms. Bass strove for composure, stacking the boxes into piles as though trying to make sense of failures, regrets and broken dreams even as more boxes tumbled from the rafters. Just when Bass's struggles reached a crossroads of hilarity and heartbreak, Barnes and Robson returned to the stage. In a final attempt to woo their audience, the trio balanced chairs in their mouths, pranced into the wind from an offstage fan with silver confetti flying and hit pose after pose with wide smiles, hoping and yearning for applause, the one thing that might keep them going. As the piece ended and the women stood with an elegantly pointed foot in second position and wide expecting arms, I was not sure whether to applaud or cry for them.
Crew members rushed onto the stage, whisking away the ruins of boxes, chairs and fallen confetti. Giulia Carotenuto stepped out in a business suit interrupting the bustle by dropping into a grande plie while cycling her arms in front of her, signaling the start of "Everything is Getting Better All the Time". Barnes, Bass and Robson in matching suits, joined Carotenuto center stage as the crew members scurried off. Keeping in close proximity to each other, the four women shadowboxed, primped, clapped and cheered their way around the stage to live recordings of Otis Redding. At first the individual, quirky gestures of the foursome were heartfelt and light, but the circus-like atmosphere that unveiled as the piece continued became overwhelming and off-putting. The dancers tried to top themselves by balancing chairs, twirling batons and stripping down to white tanks and basketball shorts, all the while smiling and winking in the spirit of showmanship. While it was clear that Barnes was examining the culture of performance and entertainment, "Everything is Getting Better All the Time" walked a fine line between using ridiculous gags and repetition as witty commentary and tripping over itself into a trap of excessiveness.
With a fresh and witty start, I was surprised to find myself slightly disappointed in the choreography towards the end of the program. However, what surprised me even more, was how much I started to care about the dancers on stage. Barnes and her dancers are endearing and infectious - you cannot help but root for them the entire show, even as their antics become repetitive and exhausting.
The week of performances continue with Pilobolus returning to the American Dance Festival, July 5-7 at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
(copyright Michele Trumble 2012)